It can be useful to take a non-linear approach to events – to look back and see our present reflected in the past. The debates filling newspapers and website about the forms British trade with Europe could or should take have made me cast my mind back to the subject of a paper I gave in 2014, in which I looked at the portrayal of merchant life in London in the late Middle Ages. My attention was caught by an anonymous poem which appeared in the middle of the fifteenth century. It was called the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye.
It can’t have been fun, being a foreign merchant in late-medieval England. There were frequent attempts to control the merchant population by ever-increasing taxes, by restricting them from carrying more than half of their income out of England – that is to say that they had to spend half of what they made in England and, briefly, in the middle of the fifteenth century, there was an ordinance which stated that while they were in England, they had to live with a host. In Robert Bale’s Chronicle of London, we read: ‘In the which parliament was ordeyned that the lumbardes shuld goo to host for VII yer’. That is to say that for the next seven years, any Lombards entering the country had to stay with an English sponsor. He also reports that that ‘all maner alienes enherite in the land shuld yerely pay a tribute to the kyng’ (p. 114).
But it’s the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye which is really of interest to me here, and I’d like to pull out a few sample quotations. Its opening, for example, is as follows:
Here beginneth the Prologe of the processe of the Libelle of Englyshe polycye, exhortynge alle Englande to kepe the see [sea] enviroun and namelye the narowe see [the Channel], shewynge whate profete commeth thereof and also whate worshype and salvacione to Englande and to all Englyshe menne
The poet goes on to recommend bluntly (and in a rather repetitive manner) ‘that we bee maysteres of the narowe see’. Towards the end, he describes the sea as:
the rounde wall,
As thoughe England were lykened to a cite
And the wall environ were the see.
Kepe than the see, that is the wall of Englond,
And than is Englond kepte by Goddes sonde
In addition to promoting keeping tight control over the Channel, the poet also lists the various commodities of foreign merchants, and how to take advantage of them. The poet is particularly unflattering about Florentine and Venetian merchants, who – so he says – bring nothing of value into the country, but remove many costly goods in exchange. Perhaps this was a way around being required to spend half their earnings in England. Their imports are, apparently:
Nifles, trifles, that litell have availed
And thynges with whiche they fetely blere oure eye,
Wyth thynges not endurynge that we bye
The goods which they take away, however are another matter. The Italians:
bere hens oure beste chaffare
Clothe, woll and tynne, whiche, as I seyde beforne,
Oute of this londe werste might be forborne
The poet then provides a substantial amount of text outlining what he considers to be deceitful behaviour on the part of the Florentines and Venetians. They are not, though, the only objects of the poet’s ire. He treats as many nations as possible in a similar fashion – including Scotland:
Therefor if we wolde manly take on honde
To kepe thys see fro Flaundres and fro Spayne
And fro Scotelonde lych as fro Pety Bretayne,
Wee schulde ryght sone have pease for all here bostes,
For they muste nede passe by oure Englysshe costes
This rather negates his later recommendation that, with England’s ‘wall’ secured:
thus shuld everi lande, one with another,
Entrecomon as brother wyth his brother,
And live togedre werreles in unite
Wythoute rancoure in verry charite
He is, however, careful to follow these pious wishes with a reiteration of his opening lines:
Here endithe the trewe processe of the libelle of Englysshe policie, exhortynge all Englande to kepe the see environ and namely the narowe see, shewynge whate worshipe, profite and salvacione commeth thereof to the reigne of Englonde, etc
The message is clear: peaceful coexistence means interacting as little as possible with your neighbours.
About fifteen years after the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye, in 1456, there were riots in London against the Italian merchants. These were recorded in William Gregory’s Chronicle of London as ‘the rysynge and wanton reule of þe mayre and the mercers of London a-gayne the Lombardys’, which resulted in many Italian merchants leaving London. Many were incarcerated, and Gregory comments that ‘the comyn talkynge and noyse was that they shulde nevyr be delyveryd butt contynue in perpetualle preson’ (p. 199). Robert Bale describes the aftermath of the riots – Londoners were punished for their parts in riots, but this only led to more discontent (pp. 143-144):
And the Saterday folowyng were endited of ffelony a sherman dwelling at algate and a noþer man of the citee and a lordes man for a rising and riflyng that was made upon lumbardes and þen after they wer hanged. Wherwith the peple sore grucched
Caroline Barron suggests a couple of possible reasons for these riots: partly the fact that Italian merchants were doing well, and this made them easy targets, and partly the fact that they had previously disappeared from London in the fourteenth century, ‘and their re-emergence provoked resentment’(p. 113). Words reflect, or are reflected in, contemporary sentiments and actions.
I’m writing this post with a sequel in mind. I first discovered the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye when I was reading the German Fortunatus of 1509. The narrative tells of a young man who travels far and wide, eventually acquiring a purse which is constantly refilled with money. Early on, he falls in with merchants in London, with near disastrous consequences. In my next post, I’ll take a quick look at that episode – it seems that an English reputation for mistreating foreigners had by this point taken root in popular imagination.
The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye – online text
Caroline M. Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages : Government and People, 1200-1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Ralph Flenley (ed.), Six Town Chronicles of England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911)
James Gairdner (ed.), The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century (London: Camden Society, 1876)
George Warner (ed.), The libelle of Englyshe Polycye: A Poem on the Use of Sea-Power (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926)